Perry P. Davis, Ed. D., Superintendent of Schools
Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee
Office of the Superintendent, Dover/Sherborn Public Schools
157 Farm Street
Dover, MA 02030
December 22, 2006
Dear Superintendent Davis and Members of the Regional School Committee:
We write to oppose efforts to remove the book, So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, from the sixth-grade English curriculum in the Dover-Sherborn School District, and to censor its author. We have been informed that this award-winning novel, which has been successfully taught without controversy for 13 years, has been attacked because it offends some members of the Korean-American community, and that the objecting parents also want to ban the author from speaking at the Dover-Sherborn Schools, although her annual presentation has been an integral part of the sixth grade English Language Arts unit on “survival” for years.
Controversy over racially sensitive themes is not new. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is frequently targeted for censorship by African-American parents who believe it perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Many African-American authors have also been attacked for their use of racially sensitive language and themes, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Walter Dean Myers, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Yet these books are serious and important efforts to expose the reality of racism and the harm it causes.
So Far from the Bamboo Grove has a similarly serious purpose. Yoko Kawashima Watkins is a peace activist who conveys a message about the importance of nonviolence and reconciliation. Her book was awarded The Courage of Conscience Award by the Peace Abbey for its “poignant and eloquent accounting of her courageous struggle against oppression during World War II and her inspiration to young people throughout America and the world.” Indeed, one former student, now a parent herself, has said that So Far from the Bamboo Shore is the most memorable book that she ever read in school.
We are aware that some claim that the book is not “historically balanced.” But So Far From the Bamboo Grove is not a work of history. It is a novel that conveys the thoughts and feelings of its 11-year-old protagonist—the emotions that Watkins herself experienced as a child in wartime Korea. To the extent that students may need more historical background to understand the book, this can be provided as part of the existing course in which it is taught.
Removal of So Far from the Bamboo Grove from the sixth grade curriculum would also violate the Regional School Committee’s own “Selection Policy for Library/Media Center Materials,” which states that the review process:
…is not to be used as a convenient or expedient means to remove materials presumed to be controversial or likely to be disapproved by segments of the community. Materials are not to be proscribed or removed because of actual or potential partisan or doctrinal disapproval, nor because of the origin, background or views of those contributing to their creation.” (Procedures for Selection, Maintenance and Reconsideration of Library and Instructional Media Resources, p. 2)
Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, their views are not shared by all. As many courts have observed, public schools have the obligation to "administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children." Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). No parent has the right "to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught." Id. Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having "to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter." Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc., 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist., 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001).
The practical effect of acceding to any parent’s request to remove materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment. This addresses the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.
We strongly urge you to retain the book and invite the author to speak to students as she has in the past. In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the curriculum not restricting it, and by including additional voices rather than silencing any. If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
National Coalition Against Censorship
Professor of Law
NYU School of Law
Vice President, Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
Hyperion Books for Children, Disney Press, Disney Editions
Carol B. Chittenden
Eight Cousins Bookstore
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
The Association of Booksellers for Children
Feminists for Free Expression